Many Biden voters doubt he can do the job now – let alone in four years’ time

This article was first published in the Mail on Sunday.

My latest poll finds Joe Biden and Donald Trump tied on 40% among registered voters, but many feel the momentum is with Trump. This time next week he is expected to wrap up the Republican nomination with a primary election victory over Nikki Haley in her home state of South Carolina. More voters now expect him to return to the White House than Biden. There are good reasons to think they could be right.

Two thirds of Americans think their country is on the wrong track, including half of 2020 Biden supporters. Some 58% of voters disapprove of his job performance and just 37% approve – worse numbers than Trump faced at the same stage of his presidency. They are more pessimistic than optimistic about prospects for the US economy.

Asked who they think would do a better job on the issues at stake, voters prefer Trump by wide margins on immigration and the border, defence, the economy, taxes, crime and the cost of living, and by narrower ones on representing the US abroad, standing up for ordinary Americans and defending constitutional rights. Biden is ahead only on the healthcare and the environment.

Unlike Biden, Trump is more popular than his party, and Republicans themselves feel more positive about their man than Democrats do about the incumbent president. This gulf in enthusiasm between the two sides – the “intensity gap”, as political scientists have it – really matters. In a close election in a divided country, persuading your people to bother getting out to vote can be the difference between victory and defeat.

This gap is not just there in the numbers. In our focus groups in the last couple weeks, Democrat-leaning voters complained about the state the country as readily as Republicans, and none said Biden had exceeded their expectations – if they had any to begin with. For all that the White House rails against special counsel Robert Hur’s description of the president as “an elderly man with a poor memory”, delivered this month following in inquiry into Biden’s handling of classified files – many of Biden’s own voters seriously doubt he is in any condition to do the job now, let alone to be at it still in four years’ time. They will talk at length about Trump’s iniquities but when you ask them if they’re determined to get and vote for his opponent, they are remarkably reluctant to commit. No two elections are the same, but in this respect listening to these voters was strangely reminiscent of the weeks leading up to Trump’s victory in 2016.

Not that Trump’s backers love everything about him. They can see his flaws as clearly as anyone else. If they could find someone who could “do Trump without being Trump”, as they sometimes put it, they would cheerfully nominate him (or her). But of the candidates recently on offer, they believe only Trump both promises action on the things they care about – whether on border control, energy independence, deregulation, international trade, or a move away from the identity politics that they see driving the left – and has the track record and the force of personality to give them confidence he can deliver. “I would rather put up with Trump’s behaviour than put up with what we have,” as one woman told us. Much as many dislike his boorishness, the feeling that “he can’t be bossed” is worth a lot of votes.

Many are also spurred by what they see as Democrat attempts to deprive them of the chance of voting for Trump, whether through the 91 indictments he faces or the attempts in Colorado and Maine simply to remove him from the ballot (which make even many of his opponents queasy). Nearly two thirds of voters told us there was probably some truth to the charges against Trump – but more Americans think the indictments will help his election chances than hinder them.

If the election were on held now, you would have to fancy Trump’s chances. But with nine long months to go, there is more than enough time for Biden to regain the initiative. One potentially telling factor is that on the economy, voters are more optimistic for themselves and their families than they are for the country as a whole. Gas prices have eased, consumer confidence is on the rise and the stock market is up. Even if many don’t yet feel the benefits in their pocket, there is time for them to filter through well before election day, especially if interest rates fall later in the year as some analysts expect.

Moreover, the numbers suggest that while support for Trump is not exactly soft, there is plenty of potential for Biden to shore up his position. I found Trump ahead among Hispanic voters, and all voters aged under 35. This should be food for thought to those who claim that “demography is destiny” and that younger and more diverse electorate will inevitably put the liberal left in pole position. But many of them currently say they would vote for a candidate other than the top two, or would stay at home, or don’t know what they would do. The same is true of African American voters, among whom Biden currently leads by just 55% to 22%, compared to his 75-point margin in 2020.

At the same time, the significant chunk of 2020 Biden voters who only somewhat disapprove of his performance still prefer Biden to Trump on most issues, but only half of them currently say they would vote to re-elect the Democrat. In all these groups, many will surely be persuaded to return to the Biden fold as the prospect of a Trump restoration grows ever more real.

If it feels like 2016 again, that doesn’t mean the same result is inevitable. For many voters wondering if they can bring themselves to vote for Biden again, 2016 it will serve as a cautionary tale. That is why Biden is determined to make the election all about Trump – and why Trump will need the discipline to make it about the voters.



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